The practice of poetry is often a solitary one. More so in India, where mentorship, workshops and creative writing programs can be challenging to find. What does being an Indian poet mean? What are its inherent challenges? In the process of publishing new and diverse voices from India and the Indian diaspora, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective has been fortunate to have the support and guidance of advisors who are generous with their time and knowledge, who are deeply engaged with the art and craft of poetry, and who are committed to bringing poetry from the margins to center stage. In a flurry of e-mail exchanges and imaginary cups of chai and glasses of wine, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective’s Shikha Malaviya sat down (virtually) with three of India’s finest poets (and part of The Collective’s sage counsel)—Meena Alexander, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Arundhathi Subramaniam— to delve into their poetic process and lives. This conversation is possibly the first of its kind in Indian poetry, a sangam of generations, geographies and styles. Meena Alexander is an Indo-American poet, whose vast body of work is largely one of migration and exile, while Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s poetic practice is one based in India, steeped in translation and curation, fusing the ancient with the global. In Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry, one finds an amalgamation of the everyday sacred and personal, where human and spiritual relationships are inextricably tangled in vulnerability and strength, often in urban landscapes. What all three poets have in common is the ability to take the numinous or ambiguous and bring it into focus.
What does it mean to be an Indian poet in English? Is there a certain expectation or responsibility attached to it? Does a contemporary Indian poetry aesthetic exist in terms of theme, style or voice?
Meena Alexander: One searches for a way of being in language, a true way. Making another body with words. Words that reach into the heart’s truth. There are of course so many voices, how else would we live in this complicated world? Always of course there is pressure of the present weighing in on us. When I was in my early twenties and publishing my first books, little books with the Writers Workshop in Calcutta, the question of language weighed on me. I was bombarded, perhaps that is not too strong a word with the question, why write in English? That is where the music came to me. Malayalam lives in me too, the fragrant dream song that lives in all that I know. But I grew up in India and abroad and my English is a river into which so many streams flow. From Hyderabad I took a train to Cuttack to spend time with Jayanta Mahapatra . I learnt so much from him about silence and the speech of the poet. Kamala Das became a dear friend and mentor and her lines gave me courage: “Let me speak/ in any language I like. The language I speak becomes/ mine…” Some time ago I published a poem called ‘Illiterate Heart’ about how as a child I wanted to run away from the cage of script, about muteness, about the many languages that live in me. And now with the pitch and pull of this globalized world, the language we write in is so surely ours. Still there is this truth that remains with me: the poem uses language to translate from a space without words, this makes for the music of the poem.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria: I’ve always maintained I write in the English bhasha, with echoes of the Tamil that I ache for, Bambaiya street Hindi, a rough and ready Marathi, heard Sanskrit, two tightly clutched handfuls of Sindhi, and somewhat less from the Malayalam and Parsi Gujarati. (You’ll agree most Indians keep three or four languages.) But how does this translate in my work? Perhaps as an underground river, unseen but constantly flowing and heard as voices, imaginations and literary forms, glimmering with promised adventures. I find it invigorating to work with classical subcontinental forms: war and love poems, dirges and such, remaking them in the English, in the now. For instance, I worked with the terse allusiveness of Prakrit love poems in ‘In and Out: Imagined Translations’ (of poems that don’t exist). Such explorations are a marker of my work but don’t need to hold for other Anglophone poets.
As editor of Poetry at Sangam, I receive poetry from all over India and the world and I know that varied voices, styles and themes flourish under this rubric. I think a more cohesive construction of modernist Indian sensibility was discernible in the work of the earlier generation.
Today, Indian poetry in English is impacted by globalization and the proliferation of net journals; often styles are similar to what’s being written elsewhere. It’s possibly more interesting to compare the writing of Indian poets who live here with those living abroad and notice say, how the grimy glitter of Mumbai life or the ravaged landscape of the North-East are worked in formal terms — as against the ache of remembrance of those living away that makes words in the mother tongue caress the skin of their poems. But contemplating our Anglophone poetic practices demands more than sighting coterminous locales or themes. It’s about the pathways of the imagination, concepts of time and philosophies, why the structures of sub-continental poetic narratives have evolved in the way they have (how far in time do we delve?) and how poets are using language today.
Yes, to responsibility, but to whom and what? An emerging poet has a duty to place her work, must network, etc. and shape herself accordingly; my responsibility is primarily to myself. Have I sung what I sought as best possible? As the 17th century bhakti poet Tukaram sang, “Words are the only jewels I possess,/ words are the only clothes I wear,/ words are the only food that sustains my life, /words are the only wealth I distribute among people.” In the words we string together lies our responsibility to ourselves, to the world. No other constraints, please!
Arundhathi Subramaniam: It means you’re a bit of an oddball, that’s for certain! To choose to be an Anglophone poet in India rather than an Anglophone novelist is an unorthodox choice: the dice is so clearly loaded in favour of the latter — in terms of publishers, readership, money, visibility, fame, you name it. It’s a strange position. On the one hand, as a poet, you’re a shadowy figure and you don’t really count in public perception (which is not such a bad thing, really). On the other, there are several insidious and not-so-insidious expectations you have to negotiate, like proving your cultural credentials, your Indianness, your politics. It’s something of an anomaly.
There is no single contemporary Indian aesthetic I can see, and thank god for that! Perhaps some patterns will reveal themselves in time, but I’m in no hurry to uncover them, because the moment one does, cultural commentators will turn prescriptive. Observations will turn into blueprints.
Let me say, very provisionally, that I do see in several contemporary Anglophone Indian poets (whose work I feel a kinship with) an unapologetic enjoyment of language, a growing expansiveness, a capacity for playfulness, a capacity to combine celebration and critique. This is not the language of journalism or of sociology; it’s a quest for a newer, fresher, re-enchanted language, if you will. The sources of enchantment are varied, but I recognize that quest playing out in very different ways. But these are broad observations. There are several emerging voices, and so, presumably, several new directions.
I’ve always believed poetry is a means to document an alternate history. Considering Indian poetry in English grew in leaps and bounds after 1947, would it be safe to say Indian poetry in English tells the story of modern India? I’m thinking of poets such as Arun Kolatkar, whose poems are often an allegorical fusion of history, myth and daily life or Reetika Vazirani and Agha Shahid Ali, who both wrote of exile, longing and exploring notions of being at/away from home.
Meena: Yes, it makes sense what you say, but I do feel one can’t legislate about these things. A poem about a shadow on a door, is that also political? Does it tell the story of the present? Perhaps. Since you ask, it’s very simple. It’s the task of the poet to bear witness. Witness to what you might ask. That’s where it turns complicated, in a good way, tangling life and words and all our unutterable emotions. I do think that much that is erased, crossed out, torn away from our ordinary lives, enters into the poems we make and this is the very flesh and soul of our lives, what the public, so called authoritative scripts do not permit. And poetry has always had a part to play in times of difficulty, in times of violence. Think of the tiny pieces of paper on which imprisoned writers have written their lines, or the bits of toothpaste used on scraps of toilet paper that the prisoners in Guantanamo used to write poems. Poems often filled with great tenderness. It is the task of poetry to return us, in tenderness to the earth, particularly in times of difficulty. I remember how a poem of mine, ‘Prison Bars’, was censored during the Emergency and the journal that was to carry it, Democratic World, came out with a blank space the precise size and shape of the poem. More recently in my book ‘Atmospheric Embroidery’, I have a cycle of sonnets based on drawings by children from Darfur, done in the relief camps. A more capacious history, a history of the human, this is what poetry makes for us.
Priya: Yours is one way of looking at it. To me, poetry sings from the margins. We strew the borders with our core concerns of being and belonging, our words are like fireflies sporadically lighting the darkness to show its true colors. But a fragmented archipelago of poetry has/is emerging along the boundaries of mainstream writing — by which I mean fiction and some wonderful non fiction as well; the next generation will better see the contours. The Indian novel that’s congruent with the enterprise of nation building, the rise of capitalism and individualism, better ‘tells the story of modern India’. I say this also as an occasional writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction, knowing the prizes and publicity, PhDs and financial support these genres receive. Poetry, by comparison, is ice melting in the Arctic, succumbing to environmental change. It’s also the sparkle in the dewdrop.
Arundhathi: It tells the story of many modern Indias, I think, all of which collide and coexist. There’s AK Ramanujan’s inspired ability to uncover the palpable immediacy of philosophy and myth. There’s Arun Kolatkar’s ability to mythologize contemporary urban reality (‘Kala Ghoda Poems’) and to contemporize myth (‘Sarpa Satra’). There’s Eunice de Souza’s Catholic Goa vignettes, Anjum Hasan’s images of small-town India, Mamang Dai’s living forests and rivers of Arunachal Pradesh. There are poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Imtiaz Dharker, Reetika Vazirani, Sudesh Mishra, Vijay Seshadri, Tabish Khair, Melanie Silgardo, among others, who speak of cultural unbelonging as a form of belonging. There are poets closer home that explore outsiderness as belonging too: Gieve Patel has a poem about being Parsi in post-Independent India, for instance; Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Irani Café Instructions’ is a quirky reminder of the way in which all forms of outsider speech are an integral part of our polyglottal inheritance in this subcontinent.
And there are so many snapshot moments, all of which form the kaleidoscope that is India: Keki Daruwalla’s ability to dream unapologetically not just of Benaras but also of ancient Greece and Persia; CP Surendran’s image of the dank interiors of a divorce court; Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s image of the bamboo trees watching in silence when the Prime Minister visits Shillong; Manohar Shetty’s image of a luxury home in Goa where the gleaming kitchen sink reflects “an oblong face with a triple chin”; Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s image of Kali as a goddess chewing on myth; EV Ramakrishnan’s image of that horrifying figure of “a man, frozen in fear, his hands folded” hounded by a mob with petrol bombs; Adil Jussawalla’s image of “an opened people” trying to re-knot and suture themselves together in the island of Mumbai; Ranjit Hoskote’s poems to painters, both Indian and Western; Mizo poet Mona Zote’s unsettling image of life on a reservation; Anand Thakore’s lyrical images of Mughal India; Ruth Vanita’s image of the fine, elastic garment of love in a tender poem about same-sex love. All these and many others are modern Indias — each as real as the other.